sci17006 — Announcement

My experience on the Space Telescope User’s Committee, by Søren Larsen

21 December 2017

I just finished my 3-year term as an ESA representative on the Space Telescope User’s Committee (STUC) and this seems like a good moment to look back and reflect on my experience on the committee.

Firstly, a few words about how the STUC operates: The committee meets twice a year at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and has about 12 members, two to three of which come from ESA member states. The meetings usually last two days, during which we hear presentations about a broad range of topics concerning the status of the telescope, its instruments, the time allocation process, outreach activities, policies, etc. The agenda also includes an update on Hubble-related ESA activities by the ESA HST Project Scientist. The STUC discusses any issues that may come up during these presentations and at the end of the meeting, a report with recommendations and remarks is drafted and discussed with the STScI director and the Project Scientist. The reports can be found on the STUC website. They also include any issues or concerns from the user community that have been brought to the attention of the STUC prior to the meeting. The STUC therefore acts as a direct interface between the user community and the top level management of the Hubble project.

As an enthusiastic Hubble user, it has been great to see the telescope remain in excellent shape. Demand for observing time is as high as ever, and Hubble continues to be extremely productive. STScI is now, of course, in a transition period leading up to the launch of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and although JWST-related issues do not fall directly within the charter of the STUC it is obvious that there are implications for Hubble and its users. There is a good chance that Hubble and JWST will be operating in tandem for several years, and this naturally raises the question of how to maximise the benefit from this overlap while keeping the logistics manageable. The changes in the Time Allocation Committee (TAC) process and schedule for cycle 25/26, which will be familiar to many users, are directly related to this transition and have been implemented in consultation with the STUC.

Looking back, serving on the STUC has been a very interesting and useful experience that was well worth the time and effort of travelling to Baltimore twice a year. During the past three years, the STUC has made recommendations and given advice on a wide range of topics, such as calibrations and strategies for optimising the lifetime of the Cosmic Origin Spectrograph, gender bias in the TAC review process, target selection for the gap filler programs, policies for attribution of credit in press releases, and orbit limit for mid-cycle proposals, to give just a few examples. It is clear that the committee’s input is taken very seriously and often makes a real and substantial difference. ESA users are always welcome to contact their representatives on the STUC and bring up concerns of any kind related to their use of Hubble.

I would like to end my review on a forward-looking note. In 1946, Lyman Spitzer wrote that “the chief contribution” of a facility like Hubble would be “to uncover new phenomena not yet imagined, and perhaps to modify profoundly our basic concepts of space and time.” This quote is posted next to the entrance of the STScI Boardroom. I think it is fair to say that Hubble has indeed done this over the past 27 years, by producing a flow of scientific discoveries that have inspired scientists and the public alike. However, it is also clear that — like any space mission — Hubble will have a finite lifespan, and we must think about how to continue building its legacy. James Webb, of course, will soon follow and be as and more successful than its predecessor. But, we need to start thinking of the next mission after Webb.  In the 1946 paper, Spitzer was actually considering a five- to 15-metre space telescope and in the next decades such a project may well become feasible. For the ESA community this is an excellent time to give serious thought as to how such a mission could be realised and how we can contribute to and benefit from it.


Søren Larsen
Radboud University Nijmegen

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New Hubble image of star cluster Messier 15
New Hubble image of star cluster Messier 15

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